Methods for the Manatees

Kaylie Anne Costa, University of Miami


The Approach: In my previous post, I described cold stress syndrome (CSS) in Florida manatees and the major threat it poses to the survival of this integral species. To expand the current scientific knowledge of CSS, I will be analyzing the lipids (aka fats) and metabolites, which are the products remaining after biological processes such as digestion, respiration, and maintenance of homeostasis, in 12 healthy and 21 CSS-affected manatee plasma samples in hopes of learning more about the metabolism of this condition and potential avenues for therapeutic applications.

In order to study the lipids and metabolites in manatee blood, I will be using liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry (LC/MS) with an electrospray ionization source. Metabolomics and lipidomics will be separately analyzed. After a chemical extraction is performed to selectively separate either the lipids or metabolites in the plasma, each extract will be individually injected into the chromatographic column to separate the chemical compounds present so that only similar compounds are analyzed in any moment of time (methodology proposed by Bligh & Dyer, 1959 and Cambridge Isotope Laboratories, Inc.). Once the separated compounds reach the end of the column, they are

css manatee

Rescued manatee showing signs of cold stress syndrome. (Photo from:

transferred to the electrospray ion source where a high temperature and voltage will be applied to evaporate the solvent and give the compounds a charge to form ions that are then directed into the mass spectrometer. Within the mass spectrometer, the ions will first be filtered by electric fields to remove anything other than either lipids or metabolites and then detected by mass to charge ratio. The most abundant ions will be fragmented and the mass to charge ration of the fragments will also be detected using an MS/MS scan. To see an animation of the flow of ions through the mass spectrometer, please click the following hyperlink:

As a result of the above processes, retention times for each ion are displayed in a graphical form called a chromatogram and the mass spectrum is recorded. Since the masses and retention times will not change between scans, these parameters for each ion can be matched to known databases of known lipids and metabolites. By applying multivariate statistics, we can determine if there is a difference in the lipids and/or metabolites in the plasma of manatees with CSS compared to healthy manatees.

flow chart

The top left graph shows a chromatogram. The highlighted peak is then shown on the mass spectrum below with a mass to charge ratio (m/z) of 760.58607. By locating this m/z and the m/z of its fragments in the mass spectrum of a MS/MS scan and matching the values with a database, we know the original peak represents Phosphatidylcholine (16:0_18:1).                                        (Graphic by Dr. Mike Napolitano)

The goal of my project is to see if CSS alters the lipid and metabolite contents of manatee plasma. If differences exist, I will study them to learn more about the progression of cold stress syndrome in manatees and the particular systems and metabolic pathways that are affected. It is our hope that this information leads to developing both diagnostic and treatment options for these animals thereby reducing the impacts of this syndrome.

A huge thank you goes to my mentor Dr. John Bowden and co-mentor Dr. Mike Napolitano as well as everyone at NIST, HML, and Fort Johnson for all of their help and guidance. I would also like to thank the National Science Foundation for funding and the Fort Johnson REU program for making this research possible (NSF DBI-1757899).


Bligh, E. G., & Dyer, W. J. (1959). A rapid method of total lipid extraction and

purification.Canadian journal of biochemistry and physiology, 37(8), 911-917.

Cambridge Isotope Laboratories, Inc. Metabolomics QC Kit For Untargeted/Targeted Mass

Spectrometry: User’s Manual. Tewksbury, MA: Author.

Cells and Instruments, but no Folsom Prison Blues

Brian Wuertz, Warren Wilson College


In my previous post, “Hiding in plain sight”, I introduced DOSS, a compound that has been recently identified as a probable obesogen. We are especially concerned about the potential of this compound to cause obesity symptoms in developing children through exposure from their mothers. While DOSS is in many products we use daily, such as homogenized milk and makeup products, it is commonly prescribed to pregnant women in the form of Colace stool softener. I am investigating both how much DOSS is in certain places in the body and how it may promote obesity.

One of the main concerns about obesity is that it elevates the risk of developing other diseases such as diabetes or cancer by causing a state of chronic inflammation (Bianchini 2002).  Chronic inflammation in  adipose tissue is regulated by immune cells, including macrophages. Macrophages are immune cells found throughout the body that help to fight against infection by recognizing invading bacteria and engulfing them in a process called phagocytosis, literally meaning to eat the other cells. In addition to phagocytosis macrophages are important regulators of the larger inflammatory response by secreting proteins that tell other cells to initiate or maintain a state of inflammation (Fujiwara 2005). This inflammatory reaction may be induced by DOSS. We have seen evidence of increased inflammation and obesity in mice treated with DOSS, so in order to figure out what causes that I am focusing on macrophages because of the way they regulate inflammation.

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I am isolating macrophages from breast milk samples under this hood in a sterile environment to make sure they are not contaminated with bacteria.

One way to study the inflammatory response of macrophages is to expose them to DOSS and then see if they produce the inflammatory proteins. Instead of trying to measure the secreted proteins, we can measure how much RNA is made in the cell. The RNA is the translator molecule that takes the plan for the protein from the DNA and makes it available for the cell to read and make the right protein. I identified genes for four different inflammatory proteins to measure the RNA so we can test if DOSS causes the macrophages to make more of any of them. I am testing macrophages that I am isolating from human placenta and breast milk tissue because the developing child is influenced by inflammation in the placenta and breast milk. Macrophages in these tissues could be the source of inflammation that influences how the child develops.

Okay so we have talked about cells, but what about the instruments? In my last post I introduced my instrument of choice, but did not call it that. It is not a guitar or a saxophone, but the HPLC, or high performance liquid chromatograph. This is simply a fancy instrument used to separate chemical compounds by forcing them through a tiny filter column filled with tiny beads. Some compounds stick more to the beads than others, so when you flow a liquid through the column the compounds come out of the column at different times. It is essential to separate the compounds in a sample because then you can measure the amounts of individual compounds.

We want to know where DOSS goes in the body, so we need to be able to measure how much of it is in a sample. I am working to get a system up and running to measure the amounts of DOSS in samples from different cells and tissues. We want to be able to measure DOSS in humans and in marine mammals such as dolphins. Dolphins are exposed to DOSS in the COREXIT oil spill dispersal agent that is applied to large and small scale oil spill issues along coastlines and in harbors. Dolphins are an important sentinel species, meaning that they can provide insight into human health issues.

I have to prepare a column and get the right mixture of solvents to make DOSS come off of the column in a timely fashion and in a way that we can measure it. The measurement is actually done with a mass spectrometer, which measures allows us to identify the compound based on how much it weighs. The number of atoms and types of atoms in the compound determine the mass of the compound. This mass is how the instrument measures the compound. The technique I am using is therefore called liquid chromatography mass spectrometry or LC-MS and the instrument is also referred to by LC-MS. Hopefully by the end of the summer I will be able to find beautiful data with this instrument that will make a coherent tune rather than a jumble of notes.


This is the MS part. It measures the mass of the compound and then breaks it apart and measures the mass of the pieces of the compounds and the amount of the compounds.


This is the LC or liquid chromatography part of the LC-MS instrument. Most of the work is figuring out the best solvent system to the sample through the small column with the red tag on it.

Funding for this REU program is generously provided by the National Science Foundation and hosted by the College of Charleston. Dr Demetri Spyropoulos at the Medical University of South Carolina is graciously hosting my research project and providing mentorship.



Bianchini, F., Kaaks, R., and Vainio, H. (2002). Overweight, obesity, and cancer risk. The Lancet Oncology 3, 565–574.
Fujiwara, N., and Kobayashi, K. (2005). Macrophages in Inflammation. Current Drug Target -Inflammation & Allergy 4, 281–286.